Is the School Nutrition Association’s Request for More School Food Funding a Priority – or a Ploy?

SNA logoIn several posts written last year, I took the School Nutrition Association (SNA) to task for not asking Congress for more money to fund healthier school food, instead seeking only to roll-back school meal nutritional standards (“School Food Professionals Versus Kids: How Did It Come to This?“).

But the SNA’s spokesperson, Diane Pratt-Heavner, said the organization wouldn’t seek a funding increase because such a request would be a nonstarter on Capitol Hill.  She told me last year:

Although SNA is emphasizing the extremely limited funding under which school meal programs must operate, members of Congress and their staff on both sides of the aisle from key authorizing committees have made it extremely clear that additional funding will not be available for child nutrition programs as part of reauthorization.  It’s important to keep in mind that Congress has just cut funding for SNAP and advocates for child nutrition programs will need to fight to protect current funding in this difficult budget environment.

Then the SNA released its 2015 position paper.  As expected, the organization continued to advocate for reversing key nutritional gains relating to sodium reduction, whole grains and requirement that children take a fruit or vegetable at lunch. But, to the surprise of many school food advocates, the organization also included a request that Congress increase meal reimbursements by 35 cents.

Based on my prior posts, you’d probably think I’d greet that development with great enthusiasm.  And, to be clear, I am glad that the SNA is asking for more money, since almost everyone agrees that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has been underfunded since its passage in 2010.

But when the SNA’s members actually sit down with Congressional representatives at the organization’s Legislative Action Conference in Washington, DC next week, how strongly will they push for more funding?  And what’s the likely effect of pairing the funding increase with the organization’s cost-free requests to roll back school food standards?

In an important piece written on today’s Beyond Chron, school food reformer Dana Woldow explains why so many of us who care about kids’ health feel uneasy about the SNA’s true priorities.  Please take a moment to read it, and share your thoughts in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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Concerned School Nutrition Association Members Send Open Letter to Their Board

SNA logoIf you’ve been following the fight over school food, you know that the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s leading organization of school food professionals, is the main force behind current efforts to weaken the new healthier meal standards.  It’s a rather surprising position for an organization with the stated mission of “advancing the quality of school meal programs,” especially since the SNA itself supported the healthy meal standards when they were first adopted back in 2010.

The organization’s stunning about-face was examined in depth in a New York Times story last fall; the factors leading to the reversal include a recent change in SNA’s leadership and its choice of a new lobbying firm.  Another factor is the SNA’s cozy relationship with Big Food, which funds at least half of the organization’s operating budget.  For more on that troubling arrangement, be sure to read this Beyond Chron piece by school food reformer Dana Woldow, this HuffPo piece by food advocate Nancy Huenergarth, and this critical post from Food Politics‘ Marion Nestle.

The SNA maintains that its position is justified because kids just aren’t eating the healthier school meals, causing districts to waste food and lose revenue.  That’s an appealing argument, but when Woldow probed more deeply into SNA’s own data, she found that the decline in school meal revenue started well before the new healthier meal standards were adopted.  Consistent with Woldow’s findings, the Food Research and Action Center recently released a study which found that the recession and an increase in school meal prices have been the true forces driving paying students from school meal programs.  Meanwhile, among kids on free and reduced price lunch — i.e., the ones who need the most nutritious meals possible — meal participation has actually increased.

Nonetheless, the SNA is likely to get a sympathetic hearing in a Republican Congress during this year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization (or CNR), which funds the school meal program every five years.  Indeed, during the 2015 appropriations process at the end of last year, the SNA found allies among several conservative legislators, including Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who, at the organization’s behest, sponsored a “waiver” provision to weaken nutrition standards.

But not all SNA members agree with their leadership.  Last May, nineteen past SNA presidents took the extraordinary step of breaking with the current SNA board by writing their own open letter to Congress urging it to stay the course on healthier school food.  (You can read my interview with one of these 19 past presidents, Dora Rivas, here.)

Yet there was no way for ordinary SNA members who also disagreed with their board to have their voices heard in this debate.  So Nancy Huehnergarth and I created an open letter for any interested SNA members to sign, which I posted it The Lunch Tray last October.  It was a move that clearly rattled the SNA leadership:  within just 24 hours of my posting the letter, the board sent an “urgent message” to its entire 55,000 member base urging them not to sign it.  The clear implication of SNA’s “urgent message” was that anyone who did sign was not a team player and would seriously undermine the organization.

Nonetheless, despite this pressure from the SNA board, 86 courageous school food directors still stepped forward to sign.  (Their names may be seen here.)  The final, signed letter was sent yesterday to the SNA board by Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutrition services for the Novato Unified School District in Novato, California, and Allyson Mrachek, nutrition supervisor at Fayetteville Public Schools in Fayetteville, Arkansas.   The letter reads:

We, the undersigned members of the SNA, respectfully urge the Board of Directors to withdraw support for any provision in Agriculture Appropriations or other legislation that would waive school nutrition standards.

We are deeply concerned that the reputation of our organization and its members are being damaged by the ongoing requests to weaken or waive school nutrition standards. While we agree that some aspects of the updates to the standards are challenging, we favor targeted and constructive solutions that do not involve Congress waiving school meal or snack standards.

We urge the Board to work with USDA and other stakeholders to identify and adopt solutions to challenges encountered by school food professionals.. We also encourage SNA to work with USDA to pair districts, which are succeeding, with those that are struggling in order to assist districts in continuing to move forward.

Thank you for your consideration of our concerns.  We stand ready to support you as you identify practical and long-term solutions that serve both the needs of school districts and the health of our schoolchildren.

If the SNA responds to this letter, I’ll certainly share its statement here.

Finally, if you are a past or current SNA member and would like to stand with these 86 brave men and women, Nancy and I have created a nearly identical version of the letter which now speaks to the upcoming CNR.  The link to this new letter is here, and any new signatures it garners will be added to the current count.

Please consider signing and sharing this letter with your colleagues to stand up for healthier school meals at this most critical time.   Thank you.

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This Valentine’s Day, #LoveHealthy!

Love HealthyIt’s February 4th and that means in just a few days it will be Valentine’s Day, an occasion for love, romance, friendship — and a whole lot of sugar, especially in our kids’ schools!

That’s why I’m glad to be one of the bloggers participating in the #LoveHealthy campaign.  Led by Allison Howe, the blogger behind Don’t Panic Mom, the campaign promotes all kinds of alternative, healthy ways to celebrate the day.

Between now and February 14th, I and some of your other favorite healthy family bloggers will be sharing posts on this theme.  Here’s the line-up:

My post, regarding a really sweet middle school initiative called “No One Eats Alone” will appear the day before Valentine’s Day, February 13th, and Sally’s post is already up on Real Mom Nutrition – “Three Healthy Moves for a Happy Valentine’s Day.”

If you “like” the #LoveHealthy Facebook page you can easily follow all the posts as well as enter giveaways from companies like Applegate, Kids Konserve, and Laptop Lunches.  You can also follow our Pinterest board, which is full of even more fun and healthy ideas.

And, by the way, have any of you noticed that Valentine’s Day candy is coming into stores earlier and earlier every year?  Check out this great post from Dana Woldow in Beyond Chron, in which she examines how the confectionary industry has turned pretty much every holiday into “candy day” —  and makes sure our store shelves are always stocked with the latest seasonal sweets.

Finally, since we’re talking about the impending Valentine’s Day sugar deluge in schools, don’t forget that you can download at any time my totally free, 40-page guide on getting junk food out of your child’s classroom.  The ebook includes links to my all-new, updated Pinterest boards, which include one specifically devoted to healthy Valentine’s celebrations.

#LoveHealthy, people!  :-)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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Today I Debate the Ethics of Marketing Healthy Food to Kids

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 9.18.52 AMToday on Beyond Chron, I debate my friend and colleague Casey Hinds of US Healthy Kids on the ethics of marketing healthy foods like fruits and vegetables to children.  You can read my “pro” piece here, and Casey’s “con” here.

Thanks to Beyond Chron for giving us this platform, and to Casey for having the idea of a debate in the first place.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, too, in a comment here on The Lunch Tray or on Beyond Chron.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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“Copycat” Junk Food in Schools – Why Is Anyone Surprised?

I couldn’t make it to last week’s School Nutrition Association (SNA) annual national conference (ANC) in Boston, but I closely followed reports coming out of the convention via Twitter and other social media. And one common refrain from some food advocates and reporters in attendance was surprise and concern over the glut of junk food promoted by some food manufacturers at the ANC.

These highly processed foods — sometimes referred to as “copycat” junk food by school food reform advocates – bear all the same logos and brand names as their supermarket counterparts, but are nutritionally tweaked to comply with the USDA’s improved school meal standards and/or its new “Smart Snacks in School” rules.

Kiera Butler, writing for Mother Jones, walked the ANC convention floor and found out that “Yes, Cheetos, Funnel Cake, and Domino’s Are Approved School Lunch Items.”  Here’s a flier she took from a PepsiCo vendor:

Photo courtesy of Mother Jones
Photo credit: Kiera Butler for Mother Jones

And here’s a post from Time magazine (“There’s a Lot of Junk at the School Nutrition Conference“) which features photos tweeted from the ANC by Eat Drink Politics‘ Michele Simon, such as this one:

simon smart snacks ANC

But I have to confess that I’ve been surprised by …  well, the surprise … caused by “copycat” junk food.

To be sure, the new federal Smart Snacks and meal standards are a huge improvement in school food, and the passage of those rules is an achievement that shouldn’t be diminished (or rolled back – ahem, SNA).  But as Michael Pollan has observed of all processed food, “You can tweak it, reformulate it and reposition it ad infinitum,” and that includes rejiggering fat, sodium and whole grain levels to meet whatever standards the USDA adopts for school meals and snacks, no matter how stringent those standards may first appear.

And whatever R&D expenditures are required to reformulate their products, food manufactures are willing to make the outlay in exchange for something extremely valuable:  the opportunity to instill on a daily basis lifelong brand loyalties among a highly impressionable population, i.e., school children.

So it should come as no surprise that Big Food will always find a way to get into school cafeterias.  But it also shouldn’t surprise us that many school food service directors embrace these products.  The chronic underfunding of the National School Lunch Program creates ongoing challenges that highly processed, “better for you” school junk food can help meet.  Such food is cheap, easily stored, requires no labor, is guaranteed to meet USDA requirements and, most importantly, it’s instantly popular with kids, thanks to careful food engineering and billions of dollars in kid-directed advertising to create brand trust and familiarity.  If offered on the meal line, it can boost participation, and if offered on the for-cash a la carte (snack bar) line, it generally results in higher sales than healthier offerings.

But, of course, “copycat” school junk food causes two significant problems.  First, it impedes efforts to redirect kids toward the fresh, whole foods that would better serve their longterm health.  Second, children have no clue that the branded foods being served in the cafeteria are somehow “better” than the standard formulation of those foods, so they continue to receive the implicit message that items like Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (whole-grain rich or otherwise) and Domino’s pizza (ditto) are acceptable, daily lunch fare.  And that’s a terribly destructive lesson that may never be unlearned.

So what, if anything, can be done to get “copycat” junk food out of the cafeteria?  In my opinion, not much at the present time, given the incentives that drive Big Food and some food service directors into each other’s arms, as well as the food industry’s influence over the SNA and Congress.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by one clever idea to keep “copycat” junk food out of schools.  The Public Health Advocacy Institute (“PHAI”) has urged the USDA to put a provision in the agency’s proposed wellness policy rules that would prohibit companies from using brand names, logos, characters, etc. on school product packaging if those same marketing elements are also used on products which don’t meet the Smart Snacks nutritional requirements.

In other words, because unhealthy fried Cheetos are sold elswhere, none of the Cheetos design elements could be used on the packaging of the school-version of Cheetos.  Thus, Big Food’s ability to use school sales as a brand marketing tool would vanish overnight:

It remains to be seen whether PHAI’s proposal makes it into the final version of the wellness policy rules. Given the huge blow this would inflict on the food industry, I think it’s unlikely.  And even if it does show up in the final rule, it would still take serious commitment on the part of local school districts to adopt and enforce such language in actual practice.  More likely, any local community already so committed to student health wouldn’t allow a lot of  “copycat” junk food in the cafeteria in the first place.

But you have to give PHAI credit for trying.  Because as my school food reform colleague Dana Woldow once memorably wrote, cleaned-up junk food products “are ‘better for you’ only in the sense that it is ‘better for you’ to be hit in the head with a brick only twice, rather than three times.”  Ouch.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

 

 

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STUDY: New School Lunch Rules Increase Kids’ Fruit & Vegetable Consumption

Last month I wrote a piece for Civil Eats describing current and forthcoming efforts by various factions to modify or roll  back some of the recent changes to school meals mandated by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).  In particular, one facet of the new school meal regulations has generated quite a bit of controversy:  how fruits and vegetables should be served to school children.

Eat Five Fruit and Vegetables Per DayTo bring everyone up to speed, before the passage of the HHFKA, kids could pass on fruits and vegetables so long as they took the required total number of meal components.  Under the new rules, however, children must take a serving of fruit or vegetables whether they want to or not.

The School Nutrition Organization (SNA), the nation’s largest association of school food professionals, has argued that this new system has resulted  in “increased program costs, plate waste, and a decline in student participation,” and it’s hoping that Congress will allow schools to revert to the old system (called “offer versus serve”) when it re-funds the school meal program in 2015.  The SNA’s assertions regarding increased food waste have been echoed in anecdotal reports from school districts around the country, but school food advocates are urging Congress to stay the course and keep the new system in place.

Against that backdrop, the findings of a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health are all the more important.  Researchers collected data on plate waste in four urban, low-income school districts both before and after the new standards were implemented, and found that under the new standards:

fruit selection increased by 23.0%; entrée and vegetable selection remained unchanged. In addition, consumption of vegetables increased by 16.2%; fruit consumption was unchanged, but because more students selected fruit, overall, more fruit was consumed post-implementation.

Importantly, the new standards did not result in increased food waste, contradicting anecdotal reports from food service directors, teachers, parents, and students that the regulations were causing an increase in waste due to both larger portion sizes and the requirement that students select a fruit or vegetable.

It’s important to note that the study did find that “high levels of fruit and vegetable waste continued to be a problem—students discarded roughly 60%-75% of vegetables and 40% of fruits on their trays,” but the authors conclude that this finding means that districts must “must focus on improving food quality and palatability to reduce waste,” rather than seeking to roll back the new meal standards.

So, to summarize, fruit and vegetable waste continues to be a problem for schools, but no more so than before the HHFKA standards were implemented, and the requirement that kids take a fruit or vegetable at lunch has caused a measurable increase in both fruit and vegetable consumption, with kids showing a preference for fruit over vegetables.

That’s good news, but it remains to be seen whether the Harvard findings will carry enough weight in Congress next year to counter the SNA  and others (namely, conservative Republicans) seeking to go back to the old regime.  Stay tuned.

[Editorial Note:  Yesterday’s post regarding new, proposed curbs on school junk food advertising yielded a lot of interesting discussion.  I’ll be posting a follow-up tomorrow or early next week.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,200 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Shaming Kids for Unpaid Lunch Accounts: Some Better Solutions

In the last two weeks, both this blog and the national media have featured a rash of stories about children having their lunches taken away by cafeteria employees due to unpaid lunch balances, and I also told you about a generous Houston school tutor/mentor who recently paid $465 of his own money to clear the debt of over 60 students.

But we all recognize that individual acts of charity, no matter how heart-warming, are not the solution to this problem.  Today, school food expert Dana Woldow has a good piece in Beyond Chron explaining the underlying causes of student lunch debt, and offering solid suggestions on how schools can address the issue.  Take a look.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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School Nutrition Association Defends Its Position Paper Re: Changes to School Meals

SNA logoYesterday I shared with you a Beyond Chron piece by school food advocate Dana Woldow (“School Nutrition Association Pushes Fruitless Position“), in which Woldow criticized a recent position paper released by the School Nutrition Association (“SNA”) calling for various changes to the new school meal regulations.  Among the modifications advocated by the SNA are: removing the new requirement that students take a fruit or vegetable with their meal; changes to the whole grain requirements; and extending the comment period for the interim final competitive food (school snack) regulations that are to go into effect this summer.

The SNA’s Director of Media Relations, Diane Pratt-Heavner, contacted me yesterday by email to share SNA’s response to Woldow’s piece (and it’s also published today in Beyond Chron).  Here it is in full:

In her January 27th article “School Nutrition Association [SNA] Pushes Fruitless Position,” Dana Woldow stated that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves “over 31 million kids a day.” In fact, since the new nutrition standards for school meals went into effect in 2012, average daily participation in NSLP has dropped to 30 million.

One million fewer students chose school lunch each day despite constant efforts by SNA members to promote the healthier meals to students. As Woldow points out, SNA members “are hardworking individuals who care very much about kids and their health.” For many years, members have participated in countless SNA education sessionswebinarsculinary demonstrations and other programming to gain the latest research and tips for encouraging students to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

For many school meal programs, the current regulations are financially unsustainable, and in today’s fiscal climate, Congress is unlikely to provide “additional funds” to support school meals as Woldow suggests. SNA members clearly support providing the healthiest possible meals for students, but to ensure overall sustainability of our nation’s child nutrition programs, Congress and USDA must provide these school nutrition professionals with greater menu planning flexibility.

Leah Schmidt, SNS
School Nutrition Association President
Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Hickman Mills C-1 School District (Missouri)

The SNA also published on its own website a press release regarding the position paper, which may be found here.

I’m going to leave this issue here for today, but in the coming days I’ll share here my own thoughts regarding some of SNA’s proposed changes to the school meal regulations, particularly the issue of requiring students to take fruits and vegetables.  And if you have your own thoughts on SNA’s recommendations, please share them below.  I especially welcome the input of school food professionals, who may always comment here anonymously.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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School Nutrition Association Seeks Roll-Back of Healthier School Food Standards

My colleague Dana Woldow has a new piece in Beyond Chron that’s well worth reading.  In it, she takes issue with a position paper just released by the School Nutrition Association (“SNA”), the leading organization of over 55,000 school food professionals around the country.

This is what lunch looked like in my district before kids were required to take  fruits & vegetables. Do we want to go back to this?
This is what one lunch looked like in my district before kids were required to take fruits & vegetables. Do we want to go back to this?

Woldow tells us that the SNA is seeking to roll back some of the hardest-won gains of the new school meal regulations, namely, the requirement that children actually take servings of fruits or vegetables with their meal, and the requirement that all grains in school meals meet “whole grain-rich criteria.”

The SNA is also asking USDA to extend the comment period on the new competitive food rules which, if they go into effect as planned on July 1st, will represent the first meaningful regulation of snack foods on school campuses, everything from vending machine offerings to the items offered in cafeteria “a la carte” lines.   On this latter SNA request, Woldow muses:

The USDA already received 250,000 comments during the 2013 comment period prior to finalizing the new regulations, including extensive comments from the SNA, so why do they think that even more public comment is needed?

Maybe it is because more public comment would give SNA’s patrons – some of whom are major food companies like Coca-ColaPepsicoKraft, and ConAgra – more time to lobby for weakening the regulations and allowing more junk food to continue to be sold to children at school.

Woldow recognizes that SNA makes these recommendations with an eye to the fiscal bottom line of school meal programs, and that schools need more federal funding to carry out the mandates of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.  But she and I are in complete agreement that the answer to this problem is not taking a giant leap backwards from the recently improved school meal standards.

I encourage you to read Woldow’s piece, as well as the SNA position paper.  SNA is likely to respond to Woldow, and I’ll share that response here as well.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Your Monday Kids and Food News Round-Up

As is often the case, sometimes there’s so much news out there that I have to share it all in one post!  Here goes:

Michelle Obama Muddies the Waters

The latest campaign from Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, which encourages Americans to drink more water, is being glassofwatermet with howls by food policy critics.  With her characteristic insight and concision, Marion Nestle explains why the Drink Up! campaign leaves much to be desired.

Chef Ann Cooper Defends Healthier School Meals

Last week, school food reformer Dana Woldow published an excellent take-d0wn of a widely circulated AP story that left most readers with the impression that the new healthier school meal standards are a big flop.  Woldow’s post got a lot of traction, including a share by Mark Bittman of the New York Times, and it also led other writers and advocates to publicly defend the improved lunch program.  One of those advocates is Chef Ann Cooper, aka The Renegade Lunch Lady.  Please take a moment to read her U.S. News & World Report piece, which urges us all to take the long view when it comes to changing the eating habits of a generation of kids.

Boston Institutes Universal Free School Meals

I’m belatedly reporting that at the start of the school year, Boston Public Schools announced that it will be providing free breakfast and lunch to all of its students, regardless of income status.  In doing so, Boston is taking advantage of the “community eligibility option” in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which allows schools with relatively high populations of socioeconomically disadvantaged students (40% or more) to do away with individual paperwork filings and simply provide free meals to all.  (This option has been granted to a handful of states since the passage of the HHFKA, and will be open to all qualifying schools and districts in the next school year.)

Why Shaming Hungry Kids Is a Bad Idea

Quite a few of you shared with me this recent interview on Fox News in which a school counselor said it was fine to deprive students of their lunch to create a “teaching moment” for parents who had neglected to refill their lunch accounts.   The interview was in response to a letter sent home by the Willingboro, NJ school district informing parents that children with empty lunch accounts would see their meals dumped in the trash.  Today on BeyondChron, Dana Woldow discusses the Willingboro incident, the very real problem of unpaid lunch tabs and what schools should do about it.

NRDC Takes on Food Additives

Many parents are worried about the possible effects of certain food additives on their children, and they’re often surprised to learn that the FDA does not test and approve each of the literally thousands of additives in our food supply.  Rather, a large percentage of these chemicals are allowed to be added to foods and beverages so long as manufacturers attest to the fact that they’re “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS.  (To learn more about this surprisingly lax system, I highly recommend Melanie Warner’s page-turner, Pandora’s Lunchbox.  My recent interview with Warner is here.)  Now the National Resources Defense Council is getting involved in a new campaign to strengthen FDA’s oversight.  You can read more on Politico here.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,400 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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An Update on Mr. Zee!

Last week I released on YouTube a rhyming children’s video, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory,” which I wrote and illustrated to help teach young kids to think more critically about processed food and Big Food’s advertising.  (More on what motivated me to do so here.)

mr zee
Mr. Zee is ready for his close-up.

When you’re one person going up against Big Food’s almost $2 billion in annual children’s advertising expenditures, it’s always going to be an uphill battle to get your message heard.  But thanks to you, my amazing Lunch Tray readership, Mr. Zee is off to an excellent start!  The video has received an average of about 900 new views a day – or 6,000 total views in just one week.  (OK, so it’s not “Gangnam Style,” but still pretty great!)

The video was tweeted by many of my food heroes, including Michael Moss (Salt Sugar Fat), Melanie Warner (Pandora’s Lunchbox), Laurie David, Chef Ann Cooper, Nancy Huehnergarth, 100 Days of Real Food and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  It’s also starting to get coverage from respected bloggers and writers and, gratifyingly, each of these posts have added to the larger conversation about kids, food and media.

For example, yesterday Dana Woldow published in Beyond Chron an interview with me about the making of the video.  But the real thrust of the piece is how the food industry is increasing its use of nontraditional — and entirely free — forms of advertising such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to reach our kids in hopes of turning them into unwitting marketers for unhealthful products.  The good news, as Dana points out, is that concerned parents and advocates can also harness these same free social media channels to share their own counter-messages, just as I’ve tried to do with Mr. Zee.

Tireless food advocate Robyn O’Brien shared the video on her Prevention blog, Inspired Bites, and said it evoked for her the 1970s classic “Free to Be You and Me.”  The video is definitely not worthy of that comparison but I loved how Robyn urges us all to leverage our collective talents to make the changes we want to see in our food system.

Today Casey Hinds of KY Healthy Kids features the video in a post entitled “Teaching Kids to Love the Foods that Love them Back,” in which she recounts the last six years of educating her daughter on the principles of healthful eating — and the uphill battle she’s faced in today’s food environment.

Gina Rau writes the wonderful Feed our Families blog and though she and I “met” way back in 2010 when our blogs were  chosen as Blogs of the Month by Jamie Oliver, we only just learned that we both have experience working in the processed food industry — proof that you can cross over from the Dark Side.  :-)  She was kind enough to give the video a lovely write-up here.

I also want to thank: Laurie David’s The Family Dinner Book, Bri of Red, Round or Green (my jingle singer!), Dr. Dina Rose of It’s Not About NutritionVeggieevangilist, Robin Shreeves of the Mother Nature Network, and Cooking Sprouts for spreading the word; Christina Le Beau for adding Mr. Zee to her blog Spoonfed‘s list of resources; and the many TLT friends, including Grains & More, Time at the Table, Eat Dinner, Real Mom Nutrition, Eating Rules and School Bites, for sharing and tweeting the video.

I’ll keep you updated now and then on the video’s progress and thank you again for sharing it via Facebook and Twitter.  By the way, the video now has its own Twitter hashtag:  #MrZee.  What else?  :-)

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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I’m Profiled Today in Beyond Chron!

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.59.03 AMAs you may know from the many times I link to her writing on TLT’s Facebook page, Dana Woldow of PEACHSF (Parents, Educators & Advocates Connect ion for Healthy School Food) writes a regular and informative column in Beyond Chron, an online daily in San Francisco, in which she tackles all manner of food-related topics, from school food reform to childhood hunger.

Recently Dana and her husband visited Houston, and I was honored to be interviewed for her column.  Her profile of me appears today.

You can read why I’m referred to as a “reluctant school food advocate,” my thoughts on school food reform in private versus public schools, and what I hope to accomplish here in Houston ISD before the youngest of my two children graduates.

Thanks to Dana for the opportunity!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Readers Respond: What Are Our Societal Obligations to Food-Allergic Kids?

PeanutsI was a little scared to post yesterday’s piece about novelist Curtis Sittenfeld’s request that parents of non-allergic kids take certain precautions to protect kids with food allergies at the playground.  The degree to which society needs to collectively accommodate such kids can be a hot button issue, and I had no idea what to expect in terms of reader reaction.

But in the end I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer niceness of TLT readers, both here on the blog and on TLT’s Facebook page.  Here are two typical comments that came in from parents not affected by food allergies in their own families:

We generally avoid taking peanut butter to the park. If we do you can bet we wipe up good when we’re done. I don’t get why this is so hard. I do not want to be the cause of another child’s suffering, regardless of whether the general public thinks I am responsible or not. It’s just a decent thing to be aware of. It takes a village people!

And . . .

No snacks on the playground. Water only. When it is time for snack, we exit the play area, find a nice shady spot in the grass and have our snack away from everyone else. When providing snacks for a group, I steer clear of nuts, berries, kiwi and soy. Or I just ask the parents ahead of time if there are any allergies or food avoidance in the group. I know I would appreciate the thought if one of my children had food allergies.

And many parents felt that Sittenfeld’s requests would serve all kids well, regardless of allergies.  Here’s a comment along those lines from Alissa Stoltz of Simply Wholesome Kitchen:

. . .  there are so many benefits to ALL kids to not allow them to run around eating and dropping food all over the place, that the fact that it will also help protect kids with potentially life-threatening allergies makes it a no-brainer.

Dana Woldow of PEACHSF had a similar view:

Letting kids run around while eating is a bad idea on many counts, including increasing the likelihood of choking. Also, part of learning healthy eating habits is to value eating as an activity worthy of one’s full attention, not something to do while also doing something else (like watching TV); distracted eating not only can lead to less enjoyment of the food itself, it also makes it harder for the child to realize when he or she has had enough.

I wasn’t the only one pleased to see such widespread acceptance of Sittenfeld’s proposal.  Here’s an email I received yesterday from my sister-in-law, Lisa Siegel, whose daughter has a severe nut allergy and was one of the first kids to undergo the type of desensitization program discussed on the blog here.  Lisa has been a committed advocate for food-allergic families and had this to say:

I had to share that I am surprised and encouraged by the supportive comments made on yesterday’s TLT allergy post.  I was recently a part of a national conference call hosted by FARE to gather testimonials on how the stress of having a food allergic kid affects the entire family.  One recurrent theme shared by parents was the frustration of reading new stories/blog posts written by those unaffected…and reader comments filled with judgement and insensitivity.  No one can truly understand what we go through until they are faced with their own adversities.  But the posts on your blog may show that the tide is slowly turning.  Thanks for putting the dialog out there!

But not everyone felt that Sittenfeld’s requests were realistic or desirable.  Reader Kate had this to say:

While the article doesn’t quite say it, it sort of assumes every park going kid has mom and dad hovering nearby with a wipe. I’m not trying to be disrespectful here, but is that really the sort of culture we want to create? Many kids are of an age to play in a park by themselves. Some I know might even cut through the park on their way to or from school, and take a quick ride on the swing. Sure we can teach these kids to be respectful of their environment, but it wouldn’t be realistic to think they were 100% free of contaminants at all times, or would be carrying a packet of wipes.

And finally, I wanted to share this interesting perspective from Justin Gagnon, CEO of ChoiceLunch (a school food provider in California) and also a parent and sometime TLT contributor:

. . . I have to say I’m disheartened by an environment where nuts are villainized and banned in so many schools, but highly processed foods that have “clean” allergen statements are not perceived to pose a threat. One is actually a great source of protein and energy for kids, but is life threatening to a small minority with dramatic and immediate consequences. The other is seemingly innocuous, but has dramatic and long-term negative consequences that many refuse to even recognize.

My 2-year old son and I were thrown out of my daughter’s preschool class Halloween party because I gave him a bag of trail mix that had nuts. We were ushered away immediately and almost incredulously at our brazen ignorance. The classroom, unbeknownst to me, was nut free. At the same time, the class was enjoying store bought, artificially colored cupcakes, go-gurts, goldfish and fruit juice – all parent provided in strict accordance with the nut-free snack policy of the school. 

There has to be a middle ground here. Schools implement drastic elimination food policies because they don’t know how to deal with severe allergies. Many times these policies restrict far more nutrient dense and wholesome foods than are otherwise allowed…all in the name of safety.

I think Justin’s point could be the topic of a separate post: does vigilance about food allergies result in kids eating more processed food?

Thanks to all who wrote in and engaged in this important discussion.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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